Chocolate Wars: The 150-Year Rivalry Between the World’s Greatest Chocolate Makers, by Deborah Cadbury

Nine stars

With the coming of Easter in a few days, there is sure to be an abundance of chocolate around the house, at least for those who celebrate and have people with a sweet tooth. It got me to wondering about the world’s obsession with cocoa products and how it all came about. It would seem that no matter when someone goes, there are all forms of chocolate, placed in the most conspicuous of places. Deborah Cadbury—of the famed cocoa family—sets about not only to tell of the emergence of cocoa and chocolate, but how companies began to rival one another on both sides of the Atlantic, creating a war that massive food companies perpetuated with their gargantuan holdings. Interestingly enough, cocoa was a commodity that came to Europe mainly from the New World, something that raised many an eyebrow as to how it might be utilised. Even more interesting, many of the early companies dealing with this product, especially in the United Kingdom, were run entirely by Quakers (the Society of Friends), as they were limited with what they could do under the strict regulations of their religious ordinances. Cadbury’s family was one such group who got into the business and sought to begin their empire by marketing a ‘healthier and more wholesome drink than alcohol’. To hear of how various vendors across Europe sought to create cocoa beverages and what they put in them would turn the reader’s stomach, as it did many consumers (some of whom surely died from the non-alimentary additives). While the Cadburys almost went bankrupt, due somewhat to the supersaturation of cocoa producers and vendors—including Terry’s Chocolate and Frye’s Cocoa—they were able to find their niche and work it, moving into the 20th century with something that would help them standout. The move from chocolate beverages to hard bars may not have been the sole propriety of Cadbury, but they found ways of making it marketable and intriguing to the general public. Companies like Nestlé arrived from Switzerland to offer their own milk chocolate, just as Hershey was establishing itself in America, creating the early buzz of a battle for the consumer. Cadbury gives a historical narrative of each of these, including how the clashes in the marketplace began heating things up. It was not until the American behemoth Kraft arrived that things began getting very dicey for fair market competition. As Cadbury explains, the Krafts were not ones to sit idly by, wanting to devour their European competitors with multi-billion pound takeovers, as others sought to amalgamate to prevent hostile loss of their ownership in the board room and with shareholders. When the (cocoa) dust settled, the gloves came off and there was blood in the streets, leaving Kraft and Nestlé to lick their small wounds and declare themselves the true powerhouses in the world of chocolate. (And you thought Willy Wonka was cruel with how he treated the other children!) A wonderful and eye-opening biographical piece by one who has surely seen and heard much in stories passed down from generation to generation. Deborah Cadbury tells it and keeps things going throughout this wonderful piece. Recommended to those who enjoy biographies with a difference, as well as the reader who often wondered ‘how that product came about’.

This book was loosely recommended to me a while ago, though I kept it filed away until I felt I was ready to tackle the topic. My current reading challenge brought this book to light and made it an almost essential read. As I mentioned earlier, with the coming of Easter, when chocolate seems more plentiful than a trip through Roald Dahl’s amazing book about a factory full of sweets, I wanted to know a little more about where all these dazzling bars and confections came from, as well as how cocoa came to be the centre of a massive business war. Cadbury seeks to offer excellent backstories about how these various companies came into being, including their non-chocolate foibles, while also showing how chocolate making touched on some of the social issues of the day, not the least of which being ‘blood cocoa’, where slaves were cultivating the beans in the New World and it was being shipped back for processing. There are so many nuances buried into this wonderful book that I never stopped learning. History weaves its way into this book as empires rise and fall, while the consumer benefits greatly. That said, it is the shareholder and the greedy boards that benefited most throughout the empire building, tossing billions out there to control the market share and leave the little person to wait and see if their factory work is worth anything. The book is laid out in a series of well-documented chapters, seeking to follow chronology wherever possible. This paves the way to an interesting story that the reader can piece together as the war escalates and victims are subsumed. Sobering and insightful from a woman whose ancestors were inside the ring, Deborah Cadbury does a masterful job covering the ins and outs of the entire industry. A must-read for those with an interest in the topic.

Kudos, Madam Cadbury, for shedding some light on this most complex topic. I see chocolate everywhere I go, but never thought to peek behind the proverbial curtain to see what was going on and how we got to this point.

This book fulfils Topic #1: The Skirmish, of the Equinox #10 Reading Challenge.

A Book for All Seasons, a different sort of Book Challenge: